There are times when moments you long wait for don’t always taste so sweet as you’d think they would be. On November 7, 2018, Donald Trump asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign, ending the longtime Alabama senator’s nearly 2 years running the Department of Justice. Now you’d think this would be a good thing. After all, Sessions is so racist that Coretta Scott King wrote a letter to the US Senate not to confirm him as a federal judge during the 1980s. And as attorney general, Sessions pulled back federal oversight of local police departments. He’s moved to prosecute anyone who illegally crosses the US-Mexico border, regardless of the conditions they’re facing back home, while pushing immigration judges to take on more deportation cases. And he’s even rescinded previous limitations on harsh mandatory minimum prison sentences for low-level drug offenses, and asked prosecutors to consider the death penalty in some drug trafficking cases. Furthermore, Sessions was an early Trump ally and a true believer with his boss on practically every single issue the Justice Department oversees whether it’s policing, immigration, prisons, or voting rights, all of which make up key parts of Trumpism. And because he so much embodied Trumpism is why I am happy to see him go. And it’s deliciously ironic that Trump removed one of his most loyal foot soldiers, which could imperil many parts of Trump’s agenda.
However, despite how it’s a spectacular blow to Trumpism, we shouldn’t celebrate Jeff Sessions’ firing. In fact, we should be very alarmed by it since the reason for his ouster is quite scary. In Donald Trump’s eyes, the ousted attorney general committed an unforgivable sin and act of betrayal that saw his ouster as a long time coming. For months, Trump has expressed anger which has prompted repeated questions about how long the attorney general would last. After all, Sessions has previously offered to resign at least once, which Trump refused to accept. But he’s also become Trump’s punching bag who’s had to endure tons of abuse all because he recused himself from the probe into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, when it came out he had met with then- Russian ambassador to the US, Sergei Kislyak. This set the stage for the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who has repeatedly declined to fire him even at Trump’s request. Trump has also complained that Sessions wasn’t sufficiently loyal because, since then he’s failed to prevent Mueller from indicting a growing number of Trump confidantes and targeting others. Trump’s anger also transferred another gripe that Sessions wouldn’t investigate connections between Hillary Clinton and Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign. And in February 2018, Trump complained that Sessions wouldn’t corroborate his unfounded belief in the existence of a widespread conspiracy theory, led by federal law enforcement personnel to undermine his candidacy during the 2016 presidential election. Because Trump believes that the FBI tricked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to surveil former campaign member, Carter Page, based on a Democrat-connected Steele dossier. Yet, none of this is true. For one, the FBI investigation into the Trump campaigns Russian connections began when Trump aide George Papadopoulos drunkenly bragged about getting Clinton dirt from the Russians to an Australian ambassador. Second, surveilling Page was justified with ample evidence beyond the so-called “Steele Dossier” and was renewed several times by appointed judges all appointed by GOP presidents and selected for FISC duty by Chief Supreme Court Justice John Roberts. Because they deemed the ongoing surveillance as fruitful. Now Mueller is currently investigating whether Trump’s alleged efforts to push Sessions out formed part of an endeavor to obstruct the probe, which would be a potentially criminal offense.
Now when a cabinet member resigns, you’d normally expect the Department No. 2 to take over in an acting capacity until a president hires a permanent replacement. In Sessions’ case, that should be Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. But Trump hates him since he’s overseeing the Mueller probe, has refused to fire Mueller, and doesn’t really care much about politics. So Trump tweeted that Sessions’ chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker would take over as acting DOJ head and will oversee the Mueller probe for the time being. Still, the fact he could either let Mueller do what he’s doing, curtail, or shut down the investigation should concern you. After all, Whitaker’s name cropped up in September as a replacement for Rosenstein when he appeared on the verge of getting fired himself. A former Iowa attorney, he’s the “eyes and ears” in the Justice Department, according to the New York Times. He’s also a fiscal and social conservative who unsuccessfully ran for the US Senate in 2014. Yet, what’s the most disturbing about Whitaker is that he was paid to sit on the advisory board of World Patent Marketing, which was ordered to pay a $26 million following federal legal action on allegations it tricked aspiring inventors into paying thousands of dollars to obtain patents and licensing deals for their inventions. As federal authorities noted, they “failed to fulfill almost every promise they make to consumers.” According to court filings, Whitaker received payments of $1,875 from the Florida-based company and sent a threatening email to a scam victim who complained to the Better Business Bureau, where he cited his former role as a federal prosecutor.
Still, why would Donald Trump tap in Matthew Whitaker as a temporary replacement for Jeff Sessions? Because while Whitaker aligns with Trump and Sessions on issues regarding crime and immigration, he comes with an added perk of having criticized the Mueller probe. In fact, Whitaker has expressed skepticism about the Mueller probe before joining the Trump administration as Sessions’ chief of staff in the fall of 2017. In August he wrote a CNN op-ed blasting the investigation which stated, “Mueller has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing. If he were to continue to investigate the [Trump family’s] financial relationships without a broadened scope in his appointment, then this would raise serious concerns that the special counsel’s investigation was a mere witch hunt.” In July of that year, he appeared on CNN offering his own take on how an acting attorney general could sideline Mueller. He said, “I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment and that attorney general doesn’t fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.” Beyond this Mueller scrutiny, Whitaker has publicly lambasted Hillary Clinton. While serving head of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a right-leaning organization criticizing Democrats on ethics matters, Whitaker said in May 2017 that Clinton should be “extremely grateful” she wasn’t prosecuted for having a private email server. 3 months later, he wrote for The Hill that Clinton’s Ukraine connections were “worth exploring.” And let’s just say when a man dips into Clinton conspiracy theories, you know he shouldn’t be running the Justice Department.
But the truth is with Donald Trump firing Jeff Sessions and replacing him with loyalist Matthew Whitaker should literally scare the shit out of us. Indeed, Sessions was a terrible attorney general and an unapologetic racist sack of shit who’s been rolling back Americans’ civil rights. Granted, I don’t like the guy at all and part of me wants to feel glad to see him go. But while he’d do anything for Trump’s love, there were certain lines he wouldn’t cross. And it’s because Sessions wouldn’t cross them that he’s no longer attorney general. Nonetheless, Sessions’ firing should inspire the same surprise and anger on the level of May 2017’s James Comey firing as head of the FBI, which much of Washington treated as a serious crisis in American democracy. Because both cases have Trump nakedly assert power over an investigation’s direction while sacking people to block oversight into his own conduct.
However, this time, the panic is more muted. While Democrats and some Never Trumpers are objecting, Jeff Sessions’ firing doesn’t have the same earth-shattering impact the Comey firing did. And the fact Donald Trump has been signaling this move for awhile normalized it, routinized it, and made it thinkable. It probably didn’t help he did it the day after Democrats won control of Congress in the midterms. Yet, slowly but surely this is how the threat to American democracy has kept growing during the Trump era. Since actions once considered as inconceivable and abhorrent back in 2016 have become accepted parts of our everyday reality. They’re just facts of life in a country governed by Trump’s Republican Party.
As we know, the Robert Mueller investigation grew out of the firing of FBI Director James Comey as a way of protecting the Trump-Russia investigation from presidential interference. Since Day 1, Donald Trump has been raging against Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the probe. In addition, he demanded that Sessions either take control of the investigation or resign and let someone else do it. Ever since then, Trump has repeatedly violated the norms of governing the way a president should treat an attorney general and the Justice Department. For Christ’s sake, he admitted that the Comey firing was about the Russia investigation on national television. He’s suggested that the attorney general’s job should be defending the president, not investigating him. He blasted the “Jeff Sessions Justice Department” for bringing charges against Republican members of Congress before the midterms because it might jeopardize Republican chances of holding onto the House. Individually, each of these shatters longstanding norms of how a president is supposed to think and act about the Department of Justice. Yet, it’s harder to muster outrage over each one individually. Though disturbing as these incidents are, no single one constitutes the end of American democracy, or even the DOJ’s independence. But even if these little norm violations don’t make a big difference by themselves, they cumulatively amount to a major change in how a president gets to treat an agency that’s supposed to be a check on his power. The same thing happened, in microcosm with Jeff Sessions’ firing. Trump’s berating of the attorney general in public, the insults, the humiliation weren’t enough to incite intense public outrage. But they served together to construct a new normal when it comes to a president’s relationship with an attorney general. By the time we got to the actual firing and replacement with a loyalist, it felt less like a novel event and more like an inevitable result of an ongoing process. And it’s this what makes Trump’s approach to firing Sessions such a worrying moment.
While it’s difficult to see how American democracy would collapse would look like in practice, Donald Trump’s firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions shows how democratic backsliding is possible. Since taking office in Hungary in 2010, President Viktor Orban spent the last 8 years setting up a system resembling democracy but isn’t actually one. He didn’t abolished elections, but gerrymandered parliamentary districts and seized control of the civil service administering elections. He didn’t ban the free press, but either bought up critical publications or forced them to sell to government-friendly allies. There was never a specific moment in time when you could say that Hungary wasn’t a democracy. It just evolved over time into something different and unfree. Same thing happened in Venezuela.
Nonetheless, Donald Trump’s firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a serious threat to the health of American institutions. Even if acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker doesn’t fire Robert Mueller right away, it’s possible he could hamstring the probe behind the scenes with bureaucratic tools like refusing to approve Mueller’s indictments and subpoenas. Indeed, Whitaker has even floated the idea of cutting probe funding. He could run the same playbook of small fights over a major confrontation that helped him assume office without a huge public fuss.
Whether knowingly or not, Donald Trump is exploiting a weakness in the democratic immune system. Democracies depend on a motivated and involved public for their survival. But if politicians only take one small step away from democracy at a time, each one narrow enough to be justifiable by their political allies, then a systematic shift away from democracy and constraints on presidential power never ends up truly galvanizing the opposition. Since if you don’t give anyone a crisis point to rally around, you can get away with a lot. But the slow degradation of institutions and the normalization of an authoritarian approach to politics, makes any warning about a particular development seem out of proportion to the immediate threat. But let’s be honest about the big picture. Along with the public flagellation and eventually firing of Jeff Sessions, Trump’s approach to politics is damaging the foundations of American democracy. Though the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives is certainly a good thing and will provide a check for Trump, the threats of American democracy can’t be solved with one election. Since they involve big structural problems like polarization of elites and politicians, growing hatred of the opposition party, deep emotional affiliation with one’s own party, and white anxiety over the loss of control over American politics and culture that’s driving authoritarian impulses and conservative polarization within White America and the Republican Party.